The Telegraph, Saturday, 3rdFebruary 2006
Nicholas Swarbrick
Merchant Navy radio operator for the Atlantic convoys of the First World
NICHOLAS SWARBRICK, who died on February 2 aged 107, served as a radio operator in the Merchant Navy during the First World War.

Nicholas Swarbrick was born on November 14 1898 at Grimsargh, near Preston, into a well-to-do family. His father had trained as a Roman Catholic priest but instead became a businessman with interests in farming. He served as chairman of Longridge Urban District Council for half a century. "What he didn't know about the drains and the sewers in the district wasn't worth knowing," his son recalled.

Young Nicholas's mother died of consumption when he was about four and for the last two years of her life he was unable to hug her for fear of infection. At six, he went to Winckley Square School in Preston. It was staffed by Jesuits who also taught at Stonyhurst and were strong believers in corporal punishment. Nicholas did well there until he was about 14, when he entered Father Ellison's class, where he was belted so hard that he refused to return to school.

Nicholas Swarbrick
He had already developed an interest in electrical and scientific matters, especially radio, and went to work for his father, taking a course to learn Morse in Liverpool just before the outbreak of war.

Within five days of obtaining his certificate of proficiency, he sailed from London on the Westfalia as a radio officer, crossing the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pick up horses for shipment to France. He made the journey several times, travelling to Montreal after Halifax's port was damaged in December 1917, when a German submarine attacked a ship carrying ammunition.

"I'm not sure how many torpedoes missed us but ships were being sunk all around me," he said in Max Arthur's Last Post, interviews with veterans of the Great War. As radio operator, Swarbrick was first with news of losses. "I could pick up an SOS from a ship in our convoy that was under attack but we never stopped to pick up survivors because if you did you'd be torpedoed. You'd be a sitting duck for the sub."

In later crossings he brought American troops to Liverpool from New York on an Atlantic liner owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, on which he heard the news of the German retreat which preceded the Armistice from the Eiffel Tower transmitter.

He stayed in the Merchant Navy through the 1920s, visiting every continent except South America, but left to help his father run farms after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, later taking a particular interest in cattle breeding.

He never married.

Heading for photograph
Swarbrick: ships sank all around him

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© The Telegraph, February 2006